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Guidelines for Effective Emailing

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Is email eating you alive? Systems expert Ralph Young provides some practical principles for handling that continually growing pile of electronic messages.
You can find out more on improving requirements practices by visiting Ralph's web site.
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Reading and writing email has become a major time eater. Here are some guidelines for effective emailing:

  • Try not to let reading and writing email become your top-priority task. Use the automatic preview feature to scan for critical or urgent emails twice or more daily and then tackle your priority tasks for the day before becoming consumed by reading and writing email. Don't allow any email (or telephone call) to automatically preempt your priority tasks.

  • Don't compose an email unless it is needed.

  • Be as concise as possible.

  • Send your email only to those who need to take action on it. By limiting the distribution to those with a "need to know," you support everyone's need to keep up with email flow. This also supports overall productivity.

  • Copy only those who really need to know about it. An exception is email that is intended to share information requiring broad distribution in support of effective communication and teamwork. (You don't want to inadvertently create an impression that you're withholding information or limiting sharing of general information to a few key people.)

  • Respond promptly to email appropriate to your activities.

  • Before sending "All project" email, consider whether it's really necessary for everyone on the project to get this information.

  • Try to capture the essence or all of your message in the subject line. For example, if the email is a reminder for people to attend an important meeting, put the meeting name, date, time, and location in the subject line. Reminders are good because people need them. You may not need to say anything in the body of the email! Another approach is to send a meeting reminder with action items and assignments early enough that the procrastinators can get it done before the meeting but not so early that they continue to procrastinate. Make announcements "just in time." Sending things too early can mean that people just forget about them.

  • Try to summarize in the first few lines the purpose of the email (beyond that captured in the subject), the requested action to be taken, and its urgency or deadline. Then provide details. This allows readers who preview email to better understand whether they need to respond, the urgency and nature of the response needed, or whether the communication is primarily for information purposes.

  • Be wary of writing email that you wouldn't be willing to have as a memo on company letterhead. For example, jokes without your facial gestures can be misinterpreted even when a smiley face is added, and irate comments once committed to text can take on a life of their own. Be professional in email even when being informal. If email received seems inflammatory in nature, consider communicating by phone or in person to defuse potential tension, and always after you have a chance to become calm. It's much easier to press the send button for an ill-considered email than it is to take it back.

  • Consider putting the most important information in the first paragraph. This is good for several reasons: a) People tire of reading long messages; b) verbiage in the front is read first and probably more than any other text; c) some email clients only preview the first 50 words, so if it isn't said in that space, it won't be read; d) it demonstrates your respect for other people if you are terse and to the point—everyone's time is valuable.

  • Review the sender and subject matter before opening email. If the email appears to be a mass mailing or the subject matter is not relevant to your job, delete the message without opening it.

  • Some meetings that are just meant to disburse info are better handled via email.

  • Use the "out of the office" feature to advise others when you are not going to be in the office. This alerts senders that they may need to contact someone else or make a note to contact you when you return. Also, suggest an alternative point of contact who might be able to address time-sensitive or critical topics.

  • If you're going to be out of the office for several days, consider taking your computer and dealing with email daily. This helps reduce the impact of returning to the office to face hundreds of messages.

  • Consider including the content of the message in the body of the email, rather than as an attachment.

  • After opening email, deal with it immediately. Don't put it in a folder "to be worked on later." This tactic makes the best use of your time in the long run because you don't have to deal with the same event twice or more. Also, it relieves some stress concerning all of those "to do's" yet to be done.

  • Use the importance option tag appropriately to help others determine their need to read a message.

  • Use the meeting scheduler feature. Keep your electronic calendar current to facilitate others' knowing your availability.

  • In a lengthy message, summarize the rest of the email in the opening paragraph so that people can jump to the part that's important to them.

  • Regularly ask people whether they prefer to be dropped off your email list.

  • Use tracking options judiciously. For example, it's not necessary for me to know whether each one of my email messages has been a) received at the destination server, and b) read by the addressee. Occasionally, I might really be interested to know that someone has received an email I've written.

  • Use the "reply to all" option even more judiciously. How many messages have you seen in which people just say "me too" or inadvertently send a personal response to a blanket request?

  • When quoting a previous message, trim the quote to only the essential information to which you're replying, particularly if the message has been forwarded along from person to person multiple times. If you're concerned about changing the meaning of the original message, type "[snip]" to indicate that you cut something.

  • Don't use email for sensitive or emotional topics, and consider using emoticons (smileys) when you say something you intend to be humorous.

  • Underline or boldface tasks you're asking people to perform. If you don't make it obvious, they won't see it. (But note the following item about settings.)

  • If your recipients don't all use a common suite of email and office applications, conform to the lowest common denominator, which may include a mix of support and lack of support for the following features:

    • Formatting such as boldfacing, underline, tabs, fixed versus proportional font, or HTML coding.

    • Special characters such as bullets, curly quotation marks, fractions, line feeds, and symbols.

    • Application file formats such as documents in PDF, RTF, or text, or saved in earlier versions of the application software.

    • Line lengths of 65, 72, or 80 characters with hard carriage returns.

    • Multiple attached files.

    • Files embedded within messages rather than attached.

    • Files in tar, gzip, stuffed, zipped, or MIME format.

  • Identify yourself with a short (four lines or less) signature file that includes your email address.

  • Adopt and institutionalize organizational email guidelines.

  • Use graphics, clip art, or rich text formatting (different fonts, large type sizes, and so on) judiciously.


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